Intercultural issues in foreign language learning and ethnographic approaches to study abroad

Author: Shirley Jordan


The article outlines current emphases on interculturality, ideas of the 'intercultural speaker' and revised approaches to language-and-culture learning. Related research activity in the UK is described. The content and method of ethnographic courses for language learners are outlined and there is detailed consideration of the implications for learners and teachers of ethnographic preparation for periods of residence abroad.

Table of contents

Intercultural issues in FL learning

Current emphases in modern language teaching and learning highlight interculturality and reconceptualise goals in terms of producing 'intercultural speakers' who will be capable, adaptable actors and mediators in globalised contexts (Buttjes & Byram 1991; Byram & Zarate 1994; Kramsch 1993 and 1998). It is acknowledged that language proficiency alone is inadequate; communication is holistic and also requires knowledge of the ways culture and language interlock and an understanding of how interaction across cultures operates.

New perspectives on 'culture' in degree studies place emphasis upon its diversity and plurality and focus on processes, change and fluctuating power relations. There is also a greater concern with the everyday and the local. Notions of 'national' cultures are taught as problematic constructs and a consequence of stereotyping, while 'high culture' is approached as only one kind of (ideologically-laden) cultural product. Cultural and anthropological theory are seen as informing intercultural learning, contributing in particular the idea of a 'third space' (Bhabha 1995; Kramsch 1995) between languages and cultures in which experiential learning takes place through the negotiation of meaning.

Such emphases position learners in new ways and enhance transferable skills. They present a fresh rationale for teachers who increasingly stress cultural processes rather than culture, and the dynamics of interaction rather than simply how to crack a linguistic 'code'. They highlight epistemological issues such as how we come to 'know' others and what evidence is the basis for such knowledge. Byram's (1997) four 'savoirs' sum up well the skills and knowledge involved. 'Savoir tre' refers to the ability to approach intercultural learning with curiosity, openness and reflexivity; 'savoir apprendre' indicates the ability to make discoveries through personal involvement in social interaction; 'savoir comprendre' involves learning how to interpret and explain cultural practices or documents and to compare them with aspects of one's own culture; and 'savoir s'engager' refers to the ability to make informed critical evaluations of aspects of one's own and other cultures.

A lively international research culture now centres on interculturality, bringing together scholars from an increasingly wide range of disciplines as well as educators involved in arranging student mobility programmes. Developments in communications technology have resulted in studies investigating the potential of long-distance intercultural learning and in recent years important new fora have emerged, such as the International Association for Languages and Intercultural Communication, whose activities and publications seek to further research into all aspects of interculturality. In the UK a strong emphasis was placed on the dissemination of research and good practice in intercultural teaching and learning through the language projects of the Higher Education Funding Council's FDTL (Fund for the Development of Teaching and Learning) scheme (1997 - 2000). As a result, courses designed to promote intercultural skills are now firmly embedded in the Modern Languages curricula of many Higher Education Institutions, and are under development in others.

Ethnographic approaches to intercultural learning

Ethnographic approaches have been found especially productive in terms of addressing intercultural issues and in enabling students both in their home institutions as well as during residence abroad, to reposition themselves as learners. Ideally, these approaches involve a protracted process of preparation and thus result in durable and conscious change. They have usually been taught in a separate course, as complementary to language learning and bringing their own distinctive emphasis to the study of informants' language use by drawing on sociolinguistics and ethnosemantics (Roberts et al 2001).

Teaching and learning methods

In home institutions students embark on short exercises in collecting naturally-occurring data and begin to develop habits of critical and reflexive thinking by 'starting with the self'. The normative value attached to familiar practices and understandings is called into question by a sustained process of 'making strange'; in other words, students are encouraged systematically to stand outside the taken-for-granted and describe it afresh as if through the eyes of a cultural outsider. The course is taught less through theory than through heuristic processes of discovery which may later be theorised. Methods such as participant observation and ethnographic conversations are practised and students learn to find good informants and to consider the ethical dimensions of working with people rather than solely with texts. Conceptual sense is made of student-gathered data (on e.g. socialisation, family, education, gender relations, exchange practices, the human body, food and eating practices, language and social identity) by relating them to themes from social anthropology and sociolinguistics.

Students begin to consider the particularity of ethnographic writing, the need for 'thick description' (Geertz 1973) the tentativeness required of cultural interpretation, the difference between interpretation and description, the various levels of generalisation required, the relationship between evidence and claim and the issues involved in writing self-and-other texts (Jordan 2001). Although assessing slippery notions such as reflexivity or empathy is difficult, the stress on processes of meaning-making and negotiation in ethnographic projects does give an opportunity for such skills to be demonstrated.

In terms of assessment, much should be continuous because of the unfamiliarity to many students of qualitative research methods. Assessment may include short data collection and analysis tasks, class diaries, self- and peer-assessment exercises or written demonstrations of an understanding of key ethnographic techniques. The most important form of assessment remains the ethnographic project - a product of fieldwork at home or abroad.

Ethnographic methods during residence abroad

If residence abroad is approached with a well-developed ethnographic sensibility the opportunities it offers for systematic experiential learning are maximised, and the difficulties it commonly presents to students are analysed reflexively rather than simply felt. Repositioning learners as 'participant observers' provides a clear rationale for the boundary position they inhabit in their new social context. It gives them a positive identity as a specific kind of researcher and a reason to contact and speak to people whom they may not otherwise have met and come to understand. Being poised between 'outsider' and 'insider' is no longer seen as a deficiency and productive solely of insecurity, but as a dynamic position from which to get involved, and also to stand back analytically and interpret practices. The fact that the self is so openly and reflexively acknowledged in contemporary ethnography as the central research tool and filter, means that self-scrutiny during this critical period of development and identity formation is formalised and given a meaningful space within academic discourse.

Ideally, students locate a cultural scene and a group of people who are prepared to be informants early in their stay. Ethnographic work is protracted, not last-minute. Time is needed to build up relationships with informants, to produce thick descriptions of aspects of their lives, to watch (and ideally to participate in) their routine activities and to attend very closely to how they present / create their identities among themselves and to the researcher, through talk.

Ethnographic conversations put learners in charge of their own extended listening comprehension exercises. These may be informal preliminary 'chats', conversations which informants agree to have taped and in which learners are interested in finding out about broad key areas, or more focussed interviews which aim to probe further complex issues of importance to the developing project. They may involve ethnosemantic approaches - for instance, paying detailed attention to key terms informants use when describing their worlds (Spradley 1979).

Data collection engages learners in various, organically linked acts of recording, analysis and indexing. 'Scratch notes' jotted down in the thick of the action are rapidly transformed into more permanent and analytic 'field notes'. Taped conversations are listened to several times and key sections of verbatim data transcribed. Notes and taped material are indexed thematically, giving rise to a 'cumulative contents list' which is instrumental in shaping the project. These processes should be undertaken methodically. Field diaries may also be produced; these are peripheral documents, highly reflexive, inquisitive, personal and often cathartic.

In terms of support, students require a degree of supervision and guidance. They may be required to submit periodic fieldwork reports or diaries. They may need help in determining the final focus of study since ethnographic accounts grow out of the field situation and are not the result of attempts to find answers to an already existing question. Students have, with the help of informants, to find their own question. Given the personal investment in data collection it is better if students are not required to return to the home institution with a completed project. To make the most of their data they should write the final version on their return with the advice of a supervisor; writing is not 'writing up' but is (re-)creative and a major part of the learning experience.


Learners who have used ethnographic approaches are typically positive about the fact that they were better prepared than many students for the period abroad, both in terms of study and project work and in personal terms. They are excited about working among informants and feel a sense of ownership of the unique project work they produce. They often articulate in mature, self-reflexive ways the changes they have undergone. They speak of ethnography as a new way of seeing and a new way of listening. They think differently about self / other relations and also about language and what it means to be a language learner.

Difficulties include overcoming shyness, occasional problematic field relations, feelings of uncertainty about the direction that the project will take, and the cognitive and affective challenges presented by ethnographic data collection. Some students also report an inability to stop doing ethnography - a gratifying suggestion that ethnographic ways of seeing are not simply instrumental in academic terms, but engender permanent changes in perception and interaction.

This 'deep', holistic learning militates against any attempt to provide very short courses on ethnography. It is, however, possible to work intensively with language students on ethnographic conversations if there is not time to explore the full range of methods.


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Jordan, S. (2001). Writing the Other, Writing the Self: Transforming Consciousness through Ethnographic Writing.Language and Intercultural Communication 1,:1:40-57.

Kramsch, C. (1993). Context and Culture in Language Teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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Kramsch, C. (1998). The Privilege of the Intercultural Speaker. In M. Byram and M. Fleming (eds),Language Learning in Intercultural Perspective: Approaches through Drama and Ethnography. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

O'Dowd, R. (2002). Intercultural Learning and the Networked Classroom. In S. Cormeraie, D. Killick and M. Parry (eds),Revolutions in Consciousness: Local Identities, Global Concerns in 'Languages and Intercultural Communication', 219-28. Leeds: IALIC and Leeds Metropolitan University.

Roberts, C., M. Byram, A. Barro, S. Jordan, and B. Street (2001). Language Learners as Ethnographers. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.

Spradley, J. (1979).The Ethnographic Interview. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.

Related links

Information on the LARA (ethnography) project:

Information on IALIC activities:

Information on Languages and Intercultural Communication journal:

Information on using the Web to enhance intercultural competence:

A variety of materials / on-line articles on intercultural communication:

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